Pakistani authorities on Monday banned former premier Nawaz Sharif from standing in next month’s general election, further damaging the credibility of a vote that the opposition may yet boycott.
The ruling came as Sharif prepared to hold crunch talks with fellow opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, in which he aimed to persuade her not to participate in the emergency-ruled nation’s polls on January 8.
Electoral officials upheld a challenge against Sharif’s candidacy on the grounds that he was convicted of criminal charges in the wake of his 1999 ouster by Pervez Musharraf, who is now President.
”The nomination papers of Nawaz Sharif are hereby rejected,” election commission returning officer Raja Qamaruz Zaman said in the eastern city of Lahore.
A rival election candidate for Sharif’s seat, Khawaja Tahir Zia, had asked the commission to disqualify Sharif because he had been convicted in a hijacking case in 2000.
The case involved Sharif’s attempt to stop a plane carrying Musharraf, who was then army chief, from landing in Pakistan in October 1999. Musharraf ousted Sharif as a result of that incident.
Sharif’s lawyers said they plan to file an appeal against his disqualification.
”How can elections be free and fair in these circumstances?” said Syed Zafar Ali Shah, the vice-president of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party.
”After eight years of military rule and with an election commission which is biased and powerless, it is no surprise that they have rejected the nomination papers of the leader of one of Pakistan’s largest parties,” he added.
The decision came two days after Sharif’s brother Shahbaz, a former provincial chief minister, was also disqualified from the elections because of pending criminal charges.
The run-up to the elections has been chaotic, with Musharraf imposing a state of emergency on November 3 in a move that opposition parties say will make the polls unfair.
Following massive international pressure, Musharraf has pledged to lift the emergency by December 16. Last week, he stepped down as chief of the army and was sworn in for a second term as a civilian president.
But Sharif flew to Islamabad from Lahore earlier Monday on in a bid to persuade Bhutto to boycott the polls alongside him, saying that Musharraf’s concessions were not enough and that he fears the polls will be rigged.
It will be the first Bhutto-Sharif meeting since he returned from seven years in exile in Saudi Arabia on November 25.
For her part, Bhutto said on Sunday she was open to talks, but warned that a boycott would only help Musharraf legitimise his imposition of emergency rule in the first place.
”The meeting is scheduled at 7pm [2pm GMT] this evening at Zardari House,” Pakistan People’s Party spokesperson Farhatullah Babar said, referring to Bhutto’s residence in the capital. ”They will discuss whether or not to boycott upcoming elections.”
Sharif’s party also confirmed the meeting and said that it would be ”crucial” for the future of democracy in Pakistan to boycott the elections.
Visiting Turkish President Abdullah Gul was due to meet Bhutto and Sharif later on Monday, and he called for Pakistan’s warring political forces to show unity despite the ongoing crisis.
”Pakistan is passing through a critical time … therefore, from this kind of critical period, all the leading teams should focus on the future of Pakistan,” Gul said at a joint news conference with Musharraf.
Musharraf, meanwhile, said it would be ”positive” for Gul to meet the opposition.
”My slogan is Pakistan comes first,” Musharraf said. ”My brother [Gul] is going to speak for Pakistan because his interest is in Pakistan and not in any individual or political parties.” — Sapa-AFP